Bumper harvest eases Zimbabwe food shortage

Drought-breaking rains have been a boon for crops, but elephants have jumped the queue in some places and many farmers still require aid.

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BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe // After two consecutive droughts that left them hungry, Douglas Mpofu, a peasant farmer, and his family have harvested enough corn for the next six years. "We were like hunter-gatherers, eating just the moment we got anything edible," said Mr Mpofu, 60, a married father of five and head of Village 7 in the Bubi district of arid Matabeleland North province.

"We woke up every day not knowing what we would eat that day. So when the first rains fell in October last year, we made sure we worked on the fields. Our area has a history of low rains, but this year, we harvested four tonnes of maize. So even if there are droughts in the next five or six years, my family has adequate food stocks." Mr Mpofu's property, like those at most rural homesteads this year, is graced with a huge raised pole and wire-mesh granary filled with the maize harvest. They stand just behind the main house.

The improved harvest this year has significantly eased food shortages throughout Zimbabwe. Government estimates, corroborated by international donor agencies, say good rainfall during the agricultural season between October and April helped produce a harvest of 1.14 million tonnes of maize across the country, an increase of 130 per cent on the previous harvest. Still, the improved harvest falls 680,000 tonnes short of national food requirements.

Gibson Bhebhe, 35, a neighbour of Mr Mpofu, said he harvested 900kg of maize, which can sustain his wife and three children for up to two years. "We are safe food-wise," he said. "It is a good harvest, but I must say we were lucky that our fields were not destroyed by elephants. Some of my neighbours had good crops, but they did not harvest anything after elephants ate everything that was in their fields."

A report by the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) issued last month said food supply had generally improved in Zimbabwe because of an improved harvest and a more liberalised food import policy. High food insecurity persists in some areas, however, the report said. "Liberalisation of the grain market is the most important change in a decade for the improvement of the agriculture sector in Zimbabwe," said an FAO economist, Kisan Gunjal, and co-leader of the United Nations mission that visited Zimbabwe in May and produced the report.

"But the full impact of the reform on production next season remains to be seen, especially in light of financial liquidity constraints and other problems of economic transition." Jan Delbaere, of WFP, who co-led the mission said: "This year's improved harvest comes after two consecutive years of poor production. Having depleted their food stocks and sold livestock and other assets to cope with the effects of recent crises, many rural households are still struggling to survive."

However, the report says, production at the household level failed to reach its potential because of the use of retained grain, including some food aid, as seed, and lack of fertilisers, fuel and draught power. This resulted in late planting and cultivation of smaller plots. The FAO and WFP said in their report that although hunger has reduced, about 2.8 million people would need food aid until next year.

In its own report, Zimbabwe Food Security Outlook (April-September 2009), the Famine Early Warning System Network, a US global food security monitoring agency, said that the majority of rural households' food crop harvests were likely to last for more than six months, except in the north-eastern districts like Mount Darwin, Rushinga, Hwedza, Mudzi, Mutoko, Seke and Uzumba-Maramba-Pfungwe. "In these districts, households' harvests were reduced by a prolonged dry spell in February," the report said.

"As such, households in these areas are likely to meet consumption requirements from their own production for about three to four months, after which they will require food assistance. In addition, most of these households have limited access to other income sources, including market gardening, casual labour and livestock sales, to access food on the market. "Uzumba-Maramba-Pfungwe and Rushinga districts are expected to have the least household food production levels - barely enough to cover two months."

In an effort to curb the recurrence of input shortage, the government and some partners are already mobilising farmers' requirements for the next season, which starts in October. The European Union, working through FAO, has unveiled a scheme to provide 150,000 small-holder farmers with maize and sorghum seed and fertiliser. This is part of an EU food initiative worth ?1 billion (Dh5.1bn) designed to ensure food security in 23 developing countries worldwide, including Zimbabwe.

Partson Mlilo, the chief executive of Bubi rural district, said that although some villagers in the area had harvested enough, others still need food aid. They had failed to plant because they lacked farming inputs and because of raids on their crop fields by elephants. "We sit on the district drought relief committee and the picture is mixed," Mr Mlilo said. "Some of the people in our district did well but others didn't because of lack of inputs and destruction of their crops by elephants or quelea birds."